In Japan during World War II a group of boys who are evacuated to the country take over a village when the inhabitants flee a plague. The novel describes the way the boys administer the village--breaking into homes for food, burying the dead, caring for the sick--and what happens when the villagers return. By the author of The Silent Cry.
So, comparisons have been running wild to Lord of the Flies, which seem apt in lots of ways: the focus on children, and henceforth, the focus on society. But this is a book that’s really drenched in the madness of war; although the group of children, as voiced by their leader, do apparently go mad in a very primal sort of way (never as brutal as Flies), it is mostly society, including nearly every adult, that interrupts the children’s passage into society, and not necessarily the children who lose their minds and kill each other. As Oe deliberately says of the adults as the children starve at night: . . . all the malicious people were fast asleep.
In this book, the first I’ve ever read of Oe (and definitely not the last), the invasion of disease, the plague, and a wartime, bloodthirsty, deranged group of villagers, do all of the harm. In fact, the only adult voice of reason is the defector, the soldier who saw the true horrors of war and took his chances in escape. He’d rather be one of them, one of the children, the “useless vermin,” versus being a cold-blooded murderer, a soldier in an unjust war. He’s seen it alright, and to him the onslaught of death by the plague that has no human origins, is a better death than by the insanity of war. After they’ve been sealed in the village by barricade, one of the kids looks up at the person keeping watch with a gun—if the children ever became courageous enough to attempt escape—and he says, “Let’s go back. I’d rather catch the plague than be shot.”
These children, hopeless, considered to be equals to rats by the villagers, surprisingly find a way to adapt to their environment, find and scavenge for food, create a system, although of much idleness (But there was nothing else we could do, so we went on patiently eating.), but with real concern for their fellow comrades. And as an anti-Lord of the Flies, their leader, who fights with an intruding Korean boy, actually learns to appreciate him as one of their own, and they band together and spark a mutual friendship.
When it all comes crashing down, and the plague suddenly erupts in their camp, and the very thing that they most feared at the beginning (abandonment) is reversed as the villagers return, we witness the true origins of brutality: the adults, war-fevered, who do all the world’s killing, all the slaying of the world’s women and children as indiscriminately as cattle, who are the conductors of all the wars that have killed more children than any plague ever could. They return as if nothing even happened. And to their surprise, after their long delay in a corresponding village, presumably “safe,” they are shocked to still see most of the children alive.
The real capabilities of human brutality and violence become evident. War, as a catalyst of abuse and trauma, is similar to an abused child’s long negated trauma, and eventually their own juxtaposed form of mental corruption, a virus, the hate, that attempts to transform anyone it can latch onto. . . . it’s as if the dead can and will be resurrected, bringing less importance to death, and death as only a stage of continuous suffering. We are already ghosts. The children who were little more than pests, were already considered dead.
In a swift 170-some pages, Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, is a startling testament to real-life brutality. Oe’s writing is precise and not overly melodramatic, as one may expect, considering the subject matter. In fact, the beats, the pace of the book is like a kindling fire that only grows warmer over time; we aren’t taken to other characters and settings; we stumble onto them naturally, and naturally we care for them and exist with them.
Not purely an anti-war novel, but along the lines of one. It’s been said before, and I’ll say it again: any story that depicts war realistically, is in actuality, an anti-war book. And this is definitely one of the best.
Read from August 14 to 18, 2013
Narrated by Eduardo Ballerini
One wouldn't want to grapple with this if on a downer, you know, the back yard filled with black dogs and storms torrenting within the four walls of one's chest; this is human misery on a stick.
Though there are inevitable comparisons to Lord of the Flies, I think Oe's novel is much more brutal, both in concept and language. He has some truly horrifying descriptions that really vividly convey the childrens' experiences. And unlike Lord of the Flies, which basically posits that children can easily have the veneer of civilization stripped from them, Oe portrays the effects of isolation and anarchy on adults as even more terrible. Needless to say, it's a pretty depressing and troubling book, but well worth reading. I wonder, though, if Oe meant his message to apply universally, or if there was some cultural commentary about the war's effect on the Japanese populace; the latter would be really interesting.
A young group of hoodlum boys, having been expelled from their reformatory, are forced to trek through endless forests to find a home in a virtual no-man's-land. When they eventually find a village, they discover that many of the animals are sick and dying: the whole village has been infected by the plague. The few remaining healthy residents flee to a neighboring village, locking the boys in a warehouse where they sleep. The novel goes on to describe the nameless narrator's relationship with his brother, a girl that he discovers, and several other boys from the reformatory school. The style (again, perhaps a function of the poor translation) is spare and minimalist, which severely inhibits the reader from being able to sympathize and empathize with the characters.
It has often been compared to "Lord of the Flies," but only because they both have an isolated group of boys who go it alone as their subjects; the similarities end there. The story is an interesting one, wrapped up in politics, the decline of moral authority, and the uneasy tensions between individualism and collectivism. It only could have been told in the aftermath of World War II.
Unfortunately, the translation is probably the worst I've ever read, which ruined the experience.
The book has been compared with Lord of the Flies (it was written before Lord of the Flies). However, in Nip the Buds the boys are sympathetic characters who maintain their humanity after being cut off from civilization.
The relationship between the unnamed narrator and his brother, one of the themes of the book, is poignant and heartbreaking. The novel ends tragically when civilization is once again imposed on the boys.
Oe has stated that he wrote the book for Japanese readers of his own age, i.e. those who came of age during World War II. He said, 'All I had to do was let my war experiences, not factual but mental, take their own course.' (Note this means experiences as a civilian. There is no combat or bombing etc. in this book).
I highly recommend this book.